Tuesday, February 19, 2013

DVD Review: “The Factory”

It's all fun and games till the ending shoots the film in the foot.

Article first published as DVD Review: The Factory on Blogcritics.

It may seem as if John Cusack’s best days may be behind him. He has at least 10 projects lined up according to IMDB, but maybe he needs to take control of his features the way he did with Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity. It was nice to see him venture into genre territory (The Raven, 2012, 1408, The Ice Harvest), but he sure seems to like his movies a little too dark lately. While War, Inc. was supposed to be an unofficial GPB sequel, there was simply no recapturing what worked so well and we still have to wait for the true further adventures of Martin Blank. JC deciding to make another comedic hitman movie a sequel does not make.

In the new direct-to-video feature The Factory, the film may still be as dark as he likes them nowadays, but his character, Mike Fletcher, feels more like Rob from High Fidelity. JC’s next feature also plants him in a cop role and seems destined straight to video also. In the meantime, The Factory has been dumped on DVD by producer Joel Silver under his Dark Castle Entertainment banner (originally home to such fare as the House on Haunted Hill, Thir13een Ghosts, and House of Wax remakes), and after you see the ending, it becomes all too clear as to what may have attracted at least Silver.

Mike Fletcher is a cop in Buffalo, NY, with a wife Shelley (Lost’s Sonya Walger), son Jed (Vincent Messina), and disgruntled daughter Abby (Mae Whitman). Over the last three years, Mike and his partner Kelsey Walker (Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter) have been investigating the disappearance of seven girls (mostly prostitutes). Every time they come close to a break in the case, it falls through. When a post-op transvestite goes missing, Mike and Kelsey stumble upon an LPN named Darryl (Gary Anthony Williams, who will always be “Smart Brother” from Undercover Brother to me) who has been stealing drugs related to pregnancy and prolonging life. Turns out, Darryl is in cahoots with the abductor, Gary (Dallas Roberts), and it’s just been made personal for Mike after Gary kidnaps Abby.

What was headed to be an above average procedural careens into a dead end once the finale kicks in. While the big plot twist is hilariously ludicrous, director/co-writer Morgan O’Neill had himself a reasonably entertaining thriller on his hands. But all the ending winds up as is set up for a sequel that will never see the light of day. Along with co-writer Paul Leyden, the two carried things along quite nicely until the absurdity takes over as not one, but two! big plot twists rear their ugly head and squash any kind of hope for a decent movie.

This is the kind of film that would have felt right at home back during the glut of Along Came a Spider, Kiss the Girls, The Bone Collector, and even Seven, were all the rage. Now, however, we expect a lot more from these types of films. This plays out more along the lines of a low-rent James Patterson adaptation. The ending probably would have worked in a novel, but it’s the lamest kind of reveal when used in a movie. The fact that whole story is “Inspired by Actual Events,” actually makes the whole film seem even funnier once the final shot cuts to black.

The Factory is suitably dark and moody thanks to Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography and Mark Isham hits all the right notes with his score. Warner Bros. has released the DVD with absolutely no special features. All that’s included are skippable trailers before the main menu for the fantastic Beautiful Creatures (seriously, this needs your money); Cloud Atlas; Argo (2012’s Best Picture by far); Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2; Warner Bros.’ 90th Anniversary 100 and 50 Film Collections; and an ad for Ultra Violet (a code is included inside). The sound is presented solely in Dolby Digital 5.1 which features some room shaking LFE.

If you’re looking for something along the lines of the films I mentioned before you could do far worse. But if you’re a Cusack completest, there’s plenty to tide you over here until we finally see a true Grosse Pointe Blank sequel or the rumored Hot Tub Time Machine 2.

Cover art and photos courtesy Warner Bros.

Blu-ray 3D Review: “Top Gun”

The need for speed has never looked more dimensional. A worthy upgrade.

Article first published as Blu-ray 3D Review: Top Gun on Blogcritics.

Is there really all that much more that could possibly be said about Top Gun? The film turns 27 in May and is aging about as well as Kelly McGillis (read: not well). It may have been deemed the greatest recruitment film the Navy ever had, and made a global star out of Tom Cruise, but the film itself doesn’t hold up as well as most classics that came out of the ’80s. Filled with an iconic soundtrack, the film itself falls rather flat. How this is called an action flick by any standard is laughable. There isn’t any until the last 15 minutes, and it flies by so fast you barely remember anything that happens. There are some explosions, Maverick saves the day, and the credits roll making me want to pop in Hot Shots!

Last week, Top Gun was released for a six day limited engagement on IMAX 3D. Now it hits your home theater 3D screens at full throttle breathing in some new life to a film that seems to be sputtering out. You would think this may have been the mindset Paramount Pictures was using when deciding that this needed the 3D conversion nearly 30 years after its original release, as this is now a triple dip on just the Blu-ray format alone. In its third iteration, Top Gun now comes to us in a Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray 2D/Digital Copy combo pack with a conversion courtesy of Legend3D. The 2D disc is literally the same one issued back in 2008 of which a full review can be found here. Just so we know it’s still the same disc, even the copyright is 2008. There are literally no new frills here, aside from the 3D of course.

So hot shot, if you’re feeling the need for 3D speed, Legend3D has done a pretty sweet job converting Top Gun for Blu-ray. I’ve read some wavering reviews before finally getting my own review copy, and I think that the 3D quality really comes down to the reviewers’ equipment. On my own 65” LG 3D TV it looks pretty spectacular. The flying sequences in particular now play better than ever. And considering that’s what everyone watches it for now (sorry, the Maverick/Charlie love story is not), the new disc definitely warrants an upgrade if you have a 3DTV. There’s a whole new sense of space to the picture that’s obviously never been there before. Even the film’s grain structure has a sense of depth with all the heat trails, cigar smoke, and explosions. There's also plenty of sharpness and detail to go around with a few soft source shots. Colors are as saturated as ever if not maybe even more than on the 2D disc.

The only time the 3D seems to have the pop-up look is in crowded shots like in the bar scenes. Anytime a big group is in a shot, the back area is completely in 2D leaving only a few characters in the foreground having any kind of space between them. Another random visual anomaly comes in the scene where Charlie invites Maverick to dinner. While he sits at the table, the background is swirling with grain but Maverick is clean as a whistle. The coolest effect comes at the 1 hour 32 minute mark as a jet takes off from the carrier. The 3D also may give some people motion sickness as it makes you feel like you’re on the old Universal Studios’ Back to the Future ride or Disneyland’s Star Tours. For me, it made all of the high flying action scenes feel new again and grants a welcome return to the classic overall.

Now, I’m not gonna sit here and blow sunshine up your ass, telling you this is a perfect 3D experience. But as far as conversions go, this one sits pretty high up on the list. Especially when it comes to live-action (Warner Bros. could learn a thing or two here after their two-part Harry Potter finale and Clash of the Titans conversions). So if you’ve been wondering if 3D can breathe new life into an aging classic, for once, the answer is a definitive yes.

Cover art and photo courtesy Paramount Home Video

Friday, February 15, 2013

Movie Review: “Beautiful Creatures”

This will probably go down as the year's biggest surprise. A complete success in spite of the studio's advertising.

***** out of 5
124 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence, scary images and some sexual material
Warner Bros. Pictures

They always say, “the book is better than the movie,” right? Well if it’s any consolation to Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures, it must be one hell of a book. Not to say the movie is one of the best ever, but it sure was a huge surprise. Writer/director Richard LaGravenese may be hit and miss in the past (his writing-only efforts far outshine his last two directing gigs (Freedom Writers, P.S. I Love You), but he’s definitely found a niche and seems to whole-heartedly love the Garcia/Stohl series. Beautiful Creatures has a lot of plot going on but never feels convoluted. Maybe that’s because at first I was scared of the 124-minute runtime, but when adapting a 600-plus page book, it makes sense to give the characters and machinations time to breathe.

Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) has been an outsider in the podunk town of Gatlin, South Carolina, and can’t wait to get out. He’s far too smart for this town, so much so that he almost only reads books that are on the town’s banned list such as A Clockwork Orange and Slaughterhouse Five. He tells his deceased mother’s best friend Amma (Viola Davis) that he’s applied to every college there is so long as they’re as far away from Gatlin as possible. Ethan lives with his never-seen father, although Amma is always helping around the house because she promised his mother she would look after him. Ethan’s best friend Link (Thomas Mann) lives next door with his zealot mother Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson) and has an unrequited love interest at school, Emily Asher (Zoey Deutch), after he broke up with her before summer break.

Before long, a new girl arrives in town by the name Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) with a number “tattooed” on her hand and a penchant for Charles Bukowski. Emily and her BFF Savannah Snow (Tiffany Boone) are positive that Lena worships the devil — she is the niece of the town’s own Boo Radley, Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), after all. After the classroom windows explode, the whole town, led by Mrs. Lincoln, set out to have Lena expelled. Thanks to Macon’s family history, along with a few threats to expose some of the town’s dirty little secrets, everything goes back to normal. At least until Lena’s cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum chewing all the scenery she can) shows up.

Meanwhile, Ethan is drawn to Lena, even admitting to have been dreaming about her for weeks, and the two kick up a relationship. Lena finally comes clean with Ethan that she’s a Caster — not a witch, that’s a dirty word only Mortals use. And there’s a subplot involving Lena’s “Claiming” on her 16th birthday (the night of the most powerful solstice in 5,000 years) where she will either become a light or dark caster. Female Casters can’t pick we’re told. Oh, and her mother, Sarafine, has been searching for her too, taking claim to the human form of Mrs. Lincoln. Now, Lena must discover her true identity before the claiming and break a curse placed on her family in 1863 when Genevieve Duchannes (Rachel Brosnahan) used a spell from the Book of Moons to bring her dead fiancĂ©, Ethan Carter Wate (Sam Gilroy), back to life.

Considering they condensed a monster-sized book down into a two hour film makes for a lot of plotting. Thankfully, director LaGravenese has cobbled everything down to streamline the action and keep things full steam ahead to the big finale; something only the other Warner Bros. property, Harry Potter, tried once with Prisoner of Azkaban (coincidentally the best film of the whole series).

Some may try to write off Beautiful Creatures as Harry Potter for the Twilight fans, but the film is way better than that. It has a snarky sense of humor about it, we’re told early in the film that the town of Gatlin is so far behind the times that the film’s playing in theaters are already on video and always misspelled (such as Interception and Finale Destination 6 – the poster outside and clip are clearly from 5). Ehrenreich and Englert make a fantastic onscreen couple, while the adult cast brings some flashy finesse to the proceedings. We also get a killer soundtrack courtesy Thenewno2. I have to admit, I liked this film far more than I ever thought I would; so much so that I’ve actually started reading the books. And if this first film is of any indication, Beautiful Creatures should be the beginning of a fantastic new saga.

Photos courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Movie Review: “A Good Day to Die Hard”

McClane is here to save Valentine's weekend.

**** out of 5
97 minutes
Rated R for violence and language
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Article first published as Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard on Blogcritics.

Is there any name more synonymous with action than John McClane? Well, maybe at least as far as characters go. I even own the NECA Cult Figures action figure and have the original Roderick Thorp novel (Nothing Lasts Forever) that started it all sitting on a shelf at home. Maybe it’s just me, but of all the action series to come out of the ’80s, the Die Hard films just may be favorites. With a smartass attitude and McClane’s wrong guy in the wrong place scenarios, Bruce Willis has provided us plenty of bang for our buck — proving you can’t keep a good franchise down. While some may have had complaints about the last outing, sighting Live Free or Die Hard as too broad and a bit on the Looney Tunes side, director John Moore proves that the series, and himself, have plenty of adventures up their sleeves with A Good Day to Die Hard.

In Moscow, Yuri Komarov (Sebastian Koch) is set to stand trial. Jack McClane (Jai Courtney) also has just gotten himself implicated after a shooting at a night club and offers to testify against Yuri under oath. Meanwhile, John McClane is in New York where he’s just been informed that his son has been arrested. After John is dropped off at the airport by daughter Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), complete with a copy of Idiot’s Guide to Moscow, Lucy begs him to not make things worse. John just wants to get to Moscow and bring back his son. What John doesn’t know is that Jack has staged an escape for Yuri and bad guy Alik (Rasha Bukvic) is hot on their trail. But it’s one-liners, double crosses, car chases, gunfire, and explosions galore once John gets caught up in the middle of things, and that’s just the way we like it.

Willis seems to have more control over the director decisions having hand-picked Len Wiseman for Live Free and bringing on John Moore for A Good Day. While I never had faith in either of them — I can’t stand Wiseman’s Underworld series and Moore seemed content with his continually bland brand of action (see Max Payne, Flight of the Phoenix, Behind Enemy Lines, and the abysmal Omen remake) — both have proven more than adequate in the ways of Dying Hard. The series sees even more changes this time around with less of the original Michael Kamen musical cues and the scope ratio altered down too. The storyline is pretty flimsy this time and the film relies so heavily on the father/son dynamic that it should have been released on Father’s Day weekend.

Thankfully, writer Skip Woods (also unknown for great action films: The A-Team, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hitman, Swordfish) knows how to string along the action and like I said before, that’s why we came in the first place. The film’s sense of fun keeps the pacing chugging along, even if there are some lulls here and there which is really surprising considering this is the shortest Die Hard yet at a mere 97 minutes. Courtney holds his own as McClane Jr. and I won’t be surprised to see him back with Willis already letting on that a sixth installment is under way. If the next one isn’t called Old Habits Die Hard what else could they possibly call it? While the action gods may be back in full force this year (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone both have already failed at the box office), leave it to McClane to make any day A Good Day to Die Hard.

Photos courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

DVD Review: “Smiley”

I feel like the director did it for the same reason, but there's no lulz to be found here. At least intentionally.

Article first published as DVD Review: Smiley on Blogcritics.

You can’t help but wonder when a film was originally written when even being released in 2013 the main character doesn’t own a car and relies on a slider phone she can barely text on. Not to mention the dated references to urban legends, online chatting, The Truman Show, Punk’d, Skynet from the Terminator series, MacBooks, and so many red herrings the ending becomes a ludicrous disaster. But at least it makes one thing my friend pointed at while watching it — without giving anything away, the killer is supposed to be an incarnation of evil yet it sure looks an awful lot like someone wearing a mask most of the time.

The new horror movie Smiley is destined for the bargain bin. From co-writer/director Michael J. Gallagher, feels like it was hastily written way back in the mid-’90s then rewritten when Gallagher finally found his financing. Even the DVD cover art is in the blatant style of Scream, Urban Legend, Valentine, etc. It’s not even that Smiley is horribly made (I’ve seen way worse in theaters); it’s just so dated already.

Ashley (Caitlin Gerard) has just arrived at college where Dad (Billy St. John, a low-rent Gary Busey if there ever was one) drops her off to live with Proxy (Melanie Papalia) who’s renting a room in a house her parents can’t sell. That night, Proxy talks Ashley into hitting the “Anonymous Party” at Zane’s (Andrew James Allen) house. Before you know it, we find out that Stacy (Nikki Limo), the girl killed by “Smiley” (Michael Traynor) in the opening sequence, was killed by Zane and his friends after typing “I did it for the lulz” three times, ala Bloody Mary. They all assure Ashley that it’s just a prank and there’s no way the girl can really be dead because no one’s even found her body. (See what kind of logic we’re dealing with here?)

Eventually, Ashley unleashes Smiley upon a random chat-roulette victim and starts to investigate whether Smiley is real or not. Meanwhile, Ashley starts to question her own reality since she’s been off her meds (lithium) for six months which she was prescribed after being diagnosed as bipolar after the death of her mother. Is Smiley just an urban legend and a huge internet prank or is he really chasing Ashley across campus and stalking her dreams Freddy Kruger style?

None of it really matters as the end is a huge cop-out as Gallagher and co-writer Glasgow Phillips dig themselves deeper and deeper into a whodunit of who cares proportions. Especially given the fact that they think they have something to say about the internet age but it’s nothing we didn’t hear 10 years ago. How they managed to talk Keith David to show up as a detective is beyond me but at least he seems to be having fun, along with Roger Bart as the ethics professor – one of the way too many red herrings.

The whole movie isn’t the worst cobbled together thing ever. Although, there is the clichĂ© overabundance of characters that can’t see beyond their peripheral vision, this being a horror movie, it’s all part of the game. Some scenes seem like they were looped in post-production but probably sound worse than had they used the original recording and also wind up being out of sync. The ending is the biggest disaster of the whole thing which definitely kills any reason to see the film. The only thing that would make things interesting is if a DVD reviewer were to type out “I did it for lulz” three times to see if anything happens to the filmmakers. Just kidding…

Smiley is released in an anamorphic 2.35: 1 ratio and looks pretty crisp for DVD. I never expect to be blown away with a DVD transfer, but it looked pretty nice upconverted on my Samsung 3D Blu-ray player. Blacks were never overwhelming and shadows never appeared too muted. The 5.1 Dolby Digital served its purpose far more in the sense of surround effects and music, the dialogue is a huge mess however, sounding flat and muffled for the most part. At least I didn’t have to crank the volume up to hear what was being said, even if none of it was really worth paying attention to anyway.

The included special features are a set of surprisingly boring “Gory Outtakes” and a Gag Reel; both clock in at just barely over two minutes each. There’s also a commentary featuring Gallagher with cast members Shane Dawson and Roger Bart. The commentary is more entertaining than the movie, whodathunkit. There is also a trailer for the main feature, along with already available Arc Entertainment releases Greystone Park, Hell, and The Frozen (which appeared dead set on cramming as many horror movie rip offs as possible into 90 seconds). Another upcoming film called Riddle, starring Val Kilmer, is available on DVD February 19.

If you’re looking for a good ol’ horror fixing, I suppose you could do far worse. I’m not sure the weather was worth the trip for my friend who joined me to watch this. Just know there’s absolutely nothing in Smiley you didn’t see in the ’90s — and those movies did it far better.

Cover art and photo courtesy Arc Entertainment